Trends in Academic Recruitment: How Things are Changing

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

This article will look at how levels of recruitment for academic jobs are determined and what might change in the future.

Factors that determine recruitment patterns

The recruitment patterns of a particular department, institution or country are determined by a number of factors. This article will look at the situation in the UK. Although universities are public sector institutions, they are driven by market forces and they have to consider the demands of their students and staff; no longer are they elite, intellectual institutions away from the rigours of the capitalist world!

Surprisingly, many universities find that recruiting employees to their academic positions, especially the more senior roles, is a difficult task. Also the overall numbers of academic posts are increasing because student numbers are increasing. However, these trends sit alongside the problem of an extremely competitive job market at the ‘junior' end where large numbers of recently completed postgraduates are struggling to find their first permanent position. The global recession will also affect recruitment patterns as some institutions postpone the advertising of new positions. The issues of salary and job satisfaction also impact on recruitment trends, as does the global academic situation, especially the ‘brain drain' which takes academics away from the UK and towards the US or Europe. The question of the impending retirement of a large number of academics recruited during the 1960s hiring boom is also impacting on the decisions made by recruitment teams. More women are entering the workplace than ever before, further changing the demographic.

The recent Research Assessment Exercise will also have a massive impact on the recruitment of academics because an institutions' financial situation and hence its hiring potential are determined by the results achieved in the RAE. The decision on this will be made in March 2009 and then perhaps the ‘winning' universities will make new appointments.

Retention of staff

As well as having problems hiring senior staff, universities also increasingly suffer difficulties in retaining their staff. This is partly because of perceptions about salary, although for academics the question of salary has traditionally been only one of many considerations, including research autonomy and academic freedom. While numbers of posts are increasing, funding is actually decreasing and this means that more staff are hired on short term and part time contracts. This also helps universities to keep costs down as sometimes these posts do not include extra benefits such as a pension scheme.

With an increasingly global employment market, institutions have to worry about their staff being enticed by better pay and conditions overseas. On average US professors earn 47.5% more than their British counterparts.

Australian universities have also benefited from being able to attract lecturers and researchers with better offers than their English counterparts. However, skilled migrants are also flowing into Britain from her former colonies and other parts of the developing world, so this goes some way to compensate for the brain drain of British-born workers.

What about the credit crunch?

Despite the increasing need for staff in academia, this trend may be put on hold by the recession. Many universities are tightening their budgets and, sadly, the staffing budget is often one of the first to be cut. Part time staff and those on short-term contracts are often the hardest hit in this sort of situation with many being laid off or their contracts not renewed. This means that workloads rise for permanent staff members, further exacerbating the retention problem. Because this is a global recession, academics are less likely than usual to be attracted to go overseas. Academic recruitment in the USA has been hit particularly hard, with some states announcing temporary recruitment freezes at their public universities.

However, although budgets may be tighter than usual, some universities will compensate for the shortfall by the availability of RAE money, so the possibilities for making new appointments have not vanished completely.

What does this mean for you, the jobseeker?

Many of these trends provide ‘food for thought' for human resources professionals, but what do they mean for the academic jobseeker? Firstly, do not be unduly pessimistic; it can be really tough finding an academic job, especially if you are looking for a permanent position, but the RAE funding in the short term and the need to increase student numbers in the long term could well mean that more jobs will be available over the coming years. It is also significant that universities are increasingly concerned about their retention rates because this means that salary and job packages may improve along with in-job staff development opportunities. So, while the recession might make things difficult for some institutions for a while, it is certainly not an entirely negative picture. And you are in the right place to keep track of all the institutions that are hiring in your field:!

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